When Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was abruptly swapped out for a younger model, rock-star Prince Mohammed bin Salman, there were rumors the transfer of power was not as smooth as the Saudi government portrayed it.
The government dismissed rumors that Nayef was placed under comfortable house arrest while Salman’s ascension was completed.
According to the New York Times on Tuesday, the succession was even “rockier” than the worst-case rumors suggested. Nayef was not only held against his will, he was “pressured for hours to give up his claim to the throne.”
The Times further states that Salman planned Nayef’s ouster in advance, building support for the revised line of succession by telling other senior princes that Nayef had a drug problem and was unfit to rule.
The story that Nayef was placed under house arrest at his palace has been backed up by both U.S. officials and sources within the royal family over the past few weeks. The tale told by the NYT is even livelier than the early rumors were because it says Nayef was lured to the Safa Palace in Mecca by a phony message that the king wanted to speak with him.
When Nayef, who was in Mecca for Ramadan like most of the other royals, showed up for the meeting, he was taken into another room, stripped of his cell phone, and told he had to renounce his positions as both crown prince and interior minister.
Nayef resisted these demands at first, but as the Times points out, he is a 57-year-old diabetic who was almost killed by assassins in 2009, so his resistance eventually crumbled. He was then escorted to his palace in Jidda and kept under house arrest.
There is some speculation that he may be addicted to the drugs he takes for physical pain and PTSD from the assassination attempt, which involved a suicide bomber with 100 grams of plastic explosive in his underwear. Some graphic footage of the aftermath can be found here.
“The weight of the evidence I have seen is that he was more injured in the assassination attempt than was admitted and that he then got onto a pain killer routine that was very addictive. I think that problem got progressively worse,” former CIA officer Bruce Riedel told the New York Times.
Reuters quotes sources close to Nayef who say King Salman personally ordered him to step aside because his judgment was clouded by painkillers, and he has disregarded advice to seek treatment for his addiction.
According to this source, the king and Nayef were alone in the Mecca palace room during their confrontation. A letter from the king was read to senior members of the royal family over the telephone, informing them Nayef was replaced by Salman because his drug addiction has created a “dangerous situation.” Responses from these royals were played back to Nayef to convince him to accept his demotion.
Several people familiar with Nayef’s situation said he still has shrapnel in his body from the 2009 attempt on his life and relies on potent painkillers to manage the discomfort.
Other insiders told Reuters the drug addiction issue was a pretext for King Salman to change the line of succession and force Nayef from his official posts because he has a better relationship with the younger Mohammed bin Salman, approves of his plans to modernize the Kingdom, and/or found Nayef’s opposition to the conflicts in Yemen and Qatar troublesome.
All of these sources agreed Nayef was taken by surprise when he was told to step aside for Salman. The Saudi government has pointed to footage of Nayef embracing Salman, swearing allegiance to him, and appearing relieved that he could now retire as evidence that Nayef was not forced out of his position, but Reuters’ sources said Nayef was shocked and weary after spending all night talking with the king and was essentially ambushed by Salman and a swarm of news cameras when he walked out of the room.
The New York Times reports there is some “discontent” in the royal family over Nayef’s ouster, even though only three senior royals declined to endorse Salman’s ascension. According to Reuters, the “putsch” was put into effect only after Mohammed bin Salman developed a “strong relationship” with President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, presumably reassuring the Saudis that the United States would not be too alienated by the ouster of Nayef, who had a long-standing relationship with U.S. politicians and intelligence officials.
The Reuters report states that Mohammed bin Nayef is still under house arrest and allowed to receive only close family members as visitors. He was given permission to visit his mother under guard last week but was denied permission to move to Switzerland or London with his family.
One other interesting detail from Reuters: the king is planning to retire and transfer the throne to Crown Prince Salman very soon, possibly within the next few months.